A. Elizabeth Sloan

The Push for Protein 
As Americans continue their move to moderation and the low-carb, high-protein movement matures, sales of naturally high-protein foods like meats and eggs continue to soar. Protein-fortified products, including cereals, nutrition bars, and milk and other beverages, are gaining in popularity, too.

A detailed analysis of scanner data by Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) reveals that foods naturally low in carbohydrates—many of which, such as cheese and poultry, are inherently high in protein—have been the main driver of the low-carb movement. In fact, turkey and chicken top the list of the most frequently eaten weekly dinner items among our nation’s 70 million carb-conscious consumers. The $78-billion naturally low-in-carb category grew another $4 billion for the year ending 6/13/04. In contrast, the branded low-carb segment grew from $0.3 billion to $1.1 billion.

Fresh eggs, snack nuts/seeds, refrigerated meat/poultry, frozen meat, and refrigerated seafood are among the top 15 fastest-growing supermarket categories, according to IRI. Egg substitutes jumped 35.2%, natural chunk and string cheese 20%, dried-meat snacks 12.0%, and frozen seafood 8.1%. ACNielsen reports that sales of refrigerated meat entrees rose 17% in pounds and 23% in dollars for the year ending 7/14/04, while breakfast sausages and luncheon meats were both up 6% in unit growth.

With this increased focus on natural protein, it’s not surprising that barbecuing—on indoor and outdoor grills—is on the rise. Among the latest flavor aids for barbecuing are sweet sauces such as Emeril’s Bam! Tropical BBQ Sauce and more-exotic flavors such as McCormick’s soon-to-be released Grill Mates® Kenya Shake. Watch as the trend to layered flavors spawns a new condiment category: creative toppings for meat, fish, and poultry, such as Chef Sensations’ IQF Grilled and Sautéed Onions and Sautéed Garlic and Kraft’s Crumbled Blue Cheese. Hillshire Farms’ pre-cooked, seasoned, and sliced Chicken and Sun-dried Tomato sausages are ready to add to salads, soups, or dips. Advanced Brands’ Cheeseburger Fingers with Jalapeño appetizers and Ruiz Foods’ Egg, Bacon and Cheese and Shredded Steak and Cheese Taquitos are also being targeted to protein-focused consumers.

And restaurants are no exception. The National Restaurant Association reports that 64% of fine-dining operators reported more seafood orders than two years ago; 34% reported more pork, 30% beef, 24% veal, 19% chicken, and 4% turkey. In the casual-dining segment, 53% had more seafood orders, 36% chicken, 30% beef, 29% pork, 18% turkey 18%, and 13% veal. Just about half of diners say they are most likely to order seafood when they “go out.” Louis Harris Interactive reports that 7 in 10 Americans say they see seafood as an appealing alternative to meat or chicken.

With a unique item or something that is not usually made at home (46% of respondents) and the description of the selection on the menu (30%) being the top two influences on menu selection in a white-tablecloth restaurant, according to a Food Marketing Institute Supermarketguru.com survey, it is not surprising that chefs are creating new approaches to old protein favorites. According to Food Beat, Inc., 19% of the top 200 chains added new meat entrees in the first half of 2004; 18% seafood and 18% poultry. Other fast-emerging favorites are Latin meats, such as Carne Asada, Barbacoa, and Jalapeño bacon; ethnic sausages; gourmet-style burgers, pulled pork/slow-cooked meats; skewered/dippable meats/sauces; andan assortment of ethnic gourmet sandwiches, such as Panera Bread’s Coronado Carnitas with Mozzarella cheese, spicy ancho lime sauce, and caramelized onions on ciabatta bread. More-sophisticated presentations such as chicken scalloppini and other Italian classics such as osso buco are also coming on strong. Fishery Products International’s Coconut Crusted Tilapia with Mango and Papaya and Mediterranean-Style Crusted Salmon with Sun-Dried Tomato and Pine Nuts are helping chefs be even more creative.

In pace-setting fine-dining restaurants labeled by Food Beat as trendsetters for the rest of the industry, shellfish tops the list of protein appetizers served (43%), followed by cheese (20%), fish (19%), pork (7%), and chicken (3%). With the success of Wings and other chicken-wing-and-sauce-only restaurants, can protein snacks like ribs, seafood morsels, and skewers of all kinds be far behind? Protein samplers like Ruby Tuesday’s Tuesday Sampler with fried shrimp, chicken tenders, and fried cheese sticks with three different dipping sauces and McDonald’s’ Breakfast Protein Platters have found a welcome market. Muscles, crab cakes, fried oysters, and clams are other popular new menu additions.

As the low-carb movement slowly evolves from a “diet craze” to a more moderate way of eating, and weight-conscious consumers continue to watch their intake of foods they perceive as fattening—such as potatoes, pasta, breads, and sweets—it is likely that products naturally high in protein will remain a prime focus. However, with fat still a major consumer health concern—and a high preference among Boomers for fish and seafood as their favorite type of protein—expect a reordering of preferences in this important and relatively expensive food category.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]